Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Inspiration Point (Lake Alpine)

Union and Utica Reservoirs from Inspiration Point
2.5 miles round trip, 650 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

The views justify the name at Inspiration Point, a low volcanic ridge rising above Lake Alpine off Highway 4 in California's Sierra Nevada. This short hike delivers sweeping 360-degree views from atop a hill of volcanic rock and is one of the more rewarding short trails in Stanislaus Forest; it's a good leg-stretcher for those traveling across the Sierra Nevada on Highway 4 or day trippers visiting Lake Alpine. The dramatic volcanic cliffs of Inspiration Point also make this a worthwhile destination.

The road to Lake Alpine is typically closed in winter about two miles back from the trailhead at the Lake Alpine Sno-Park; the road across Ebbetts Pass typically opens at some point in May but access to the Chickaree Day Use area from which this hike starts may be possible slightly earlier.

I hiked to Inspiration Point as part of an early May weekend trip to Calaveras Big Trees State Park. While the road to Ebbetts Pass had not opened for the summer yet, I was able to drive all the way to the trailhead at Lake Alpine. From the Central Valley, I followed Highway 4 past Angels Camp, Murphys, and Bear Valley to Lake Alpine, arriving at the lake 48 miles after leaving Angels Camp. I followed Highway 4 along the north shore of the lake until coming to the parking area for the Chickaree Day Use area on the right side of the road. I parked in this lot, where there was room for about two dozen cars.

Leaving the parking lot, I followed a paved trail that led to a bridge crossing over Silver Creek, one of the main inlet streams feeding Lake Alpine. During my May visit, there was still quite a bit of snow remaining from winter, so both the trail and bridge were covered in snow; I donned microspikes to avoid slipping.

Bridge over Silver Creek
After crossing the bridge, the trail headed to the right, following Silver Creek as its waters flowed into Lake Alpine. The Pine Marten Campground was off to the left of the trail, its picnic tables visible through the forest. The trail was separated from the lakeshore initially by some trees before temporarily separating from the lakeshore as it crossed a very slight ridge. Transitioning to a dirt tread by this point, the trail returned to its arm's length separation from the lakeshore at 0.3 miles. It was easy enough to descend to the lakeshore here to catch some views of the forested and sometimes rocky shore of this pretty reservoir.

Lake Alpine
At just under a half mile into the hike, after nearly completely flat hiking along the lakeshore, I came to a sign pointing towards Inspiration Point; here, the Inspiration Point Trail peeled off to the left from the main lakeshore path and headed uphill. The trail was extremely direct in its ascent, eschewing switchbacks as it ascended 350 feet over the next third of a mile to reach a saddle on the crest of Inspiration Point's major ridge. The ascent was initially through forest but opened up at 0.7 miles as the trail passed through a clearing with the first views over Lake Alpine and across the valley to Mount Reba. After the clearing, the trail reentered the forest before reemerging into the open at the saddle atop the ridge at 0.9 miles. Impressive cliffs of volcanic rock rose above the saddle and new views opened to the south of a landscape of snow, forest, and granite; Union and Utica Reservoirs were two watery jewels amidst the trees and gray rock.

Lahar cliffs of Inspiration Point
I turned left here and headed east along the ridge towards Inspiration Point's summit. The trail began a stiff uphill ascent through a bushy stretch before emerging on the ridge above the cliffs; from here on, the trail was a little less clear, with a path running just below the crest on the north side of the ridge and a separate path following the crest itself. I found the trail directly along the ridge easier to navigate and more scenic. In either case, the views improved dramatically here as I continued to ascend, heading towards Inspiration Point's summit plateau. Widening views here encompassed Lake Alpine, Mount Reba, Union and Utica Reservoirs, the Dardanelles, and the forested western tail of the Sierra Nevada, but I pressed on towards the summit to see this low peak's full panorama.

View west along the ridge of Inspiration Point
Up on the ridge, I no longer had to struggle with the snow that I had encountered earlier on the hike; here, spring had arrived and phlox was blooming in spots in the otherwise barren landscape of volcanic rock.

Early-blooming phlox
Inspiration Point's true summit was unfortunately not a prominent high point but instead a wide plateau dotted with a handful of pines. I reached the summit at 1.2 miles from the trailhead but found limited views due to the low angle of the slopes from the summit. Luckily, hiking along the edges of the plateau allowed me to enjoy the full views that this peak offered.

Inspiration Point summit plateau
To the north, I could see back to where I started: the forested shores of Lake Alpine beneath Mount Reba, with Mokelumne Peak rising in the distance. Frog Lake lay to the east, beneath the rounded granite form of Bull Run Peak. Interestingly, the most spectacular mountains here were those built not from famed Sierra granite but with igneous extrusive rocks: the great cliffs of the Dardanelles and the dramatic peaks of the Sonora Pass area, including massive Leavitt Peak, as well as Inspiration Point itself, are formed from igneous rocks erupted from the Little Walker Caldera, an extinct volcano responsible for much of the extrusive igneous geology in the Sonora Pass area.

Mokelumne Peak and Mount Reba rise above Lake Alpine
Dardanelles and Leavitt Peak
Duck Lake and Bull Run Peak
Sonora Pass peaks
I made a loop around the summit plateau to experience the view in all directions before descending down the ridge I took up and returning through the snow to the trailhead. On a lovely May weekend day, I had this trail entirely to myself during late afternoon, but I expect that with this hike's proximity to Lake Alpine, it will be far busier when the early stretches of the trail aren't covered in two feet of snow. A pretty hike for those in the area seeking an easy but quietier option to the busy trails of Yosemite or Tahoe.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Granite Peak (Trinity Alps)

The snowcapped peaks at the heart of the Trinity Alps
8.5 miles round trip, 4600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous, trail is easy to lose in spots
Access: Decent gravel road to trailhead, no fee required

On the edge of Northern California’s Trinity Alps, Granite Peak is a rare find: a trail-accessible summit doable by day hike that offers views deep into that wild and rugged mountain range. There’s a price to pay for such a handsome reward: the trail to its summit is brutal and relentless. 4600 feet of elevation gain is no joke, but the views of Trinity Lake, Mount Shasta, and the Trinity Alps are well worth the effort for those in appropriate shape and with decent navigational skills. Those who succeed in reaching the summit are likely to enjoy the stellar views with little to no company, as few hikers make the long drive here and even fewer make it to the top.

I hiked Granite Peak on Memorial Day weekend during a low snow year. This trail is usually accessible by Memorial Day most years as snow melts earlier on Granite Peak’s south facing aspects. The Trinity Alps are a long drive from most of California’s large population centers, with Redding being the closest city and Weaverville being the closest town. To reach the Granite Peak Trailhead from Weaverville, I followed Highway 3 north from town for 17 miles to the unmarked Granite Peak Road turnoff. The turnoff came on the left side of the road, 3.2 miles after Highway 3 crosses a bridge over an arm of Trinity Lake, and it was directly across Highway 3 from a signed right turnoff for Bushytail Campground. I took the left turn onto gravel Granite Peak Road and followed the decent gravel road uphill for just under three miles to the trailhead. Multiple unmarked gravel roads branched off from the main Granite Peak Road, so I stuck to the road following the top of the ridge each time until coming to a saddle at 2.5 miles down the road; at this junction, I took the left fork and followed a slightly bumpier gravel road for a final third of a mile to a mid-sized gravel parking area with room for over 20 cars. As Granite Peak sees few hikers, I can’t imagine that this lot ever fills up- there were just two other hikers who parked here on the day of my visit during Memorial Day weekend.

I followed the trail out of the far end of the parking area and immediately began a steep and direct ascent up a forested ridge of Granite Peak. The grade was punishing and unrelenting as the trail climbed 1200 feet in the first 1.2 miles. While there were no views to speak of in this conifer forest, occasional spring wildflowers, including patches of white irises, provided some interest on the ascent. At 1.2 miles, the trail swung left and crossed a small stream; in late May, the stream was lined with copious blooming dogwoods.

White irises
 
Dogwoods blooming in the forest
Shortly after crossing the stream, the trail turned uphill again and recommitted to the intense climb. On this stretch of the ascent, tight switchbacks helped deal with the even steeper slope of the mountain. At 2.5 miles, after another 1200 feet of ascent, the trail crossed through an avalanche chute and continued its switchback ascent.

The trail reentered the avalanche chute at 2.8 miles. Here, the trail disappeared into the thick vegetation and I momentarily lost the trail. A few ribbons on bushes appeared to mark some path, but the brush was so thick around the markers that it was difficult to find any actual sort of trail here. I pushed my way through the brush, knowing that the trail would exit to the right side of the chute, and eventually found the trail as it exited the chute and reentered the forest. The relentless uphill grind continued, until all my efforts finally began to bear fruit when the trail broke out into an open slope at 3.3 miles, now 3600 feet above the trailhead. 

Open upper slopes of Granite Peak
As the trail gained the top of a rocky ridge here, I had my first views of the peak’s surroundings. Trinity Lake- one of three massive hydroelectric and water storage projects in the North State- lay below, its water levels unfortunately low after an extremely dry winter. Shasta Bally rose to the southeast and Lassen Peak’s snowy plug dome summit was visible across the northernmost reaches of the Sacramento Valley. Monument Peak, an outlying peak of the Trinity Alps, rose to the south, with some remaining snow on its upper reaches. Beyond Monument Peak, layer upon layer of the California Coast Ranges faded to the horizon. Most notable among these peaks were the North and South Yolla Bolly, with South Yolla Bolly being the highest point of the Coast Ranges south of the Trinity Alps. The summit of Granite Peak itself also came into view for the first time during the hike, giving me a clear look at my destination. The views were enjoyable, but I was unfortunately stung by a bee during my break here.

Shasta Bally and Trinity Lake

Looking up to the summit of Granite Peak
Leaving the viewpoint, the trail continued the nonstop ascent through the rapidly thinning forest. By the time I reached a junction with a faint connector trail from Stonewall Pass at 3.8 miles, the trees had bowed out and I was ascending a final, exposed open slope to the summit. The open and rocky slopes here were punctuated with patches of blooming wildflowers, most notably phlox, which thrives in sunny and exposed environments like this.

Phlox
Views of Mount Shasta and Mount Eddy to the northeast now joined the panorama that I had seen earlier: Mount Shasta’s 14140-foot stratovolcano cone stood majestically but I was shocked by the paucity of its spring snow coat. Snow was quite patchy on the mountain at the end of May, with clear regions of rock visible along the Avalanche Gulch climbing route. In years past, Memorial Day weekend was typically peak climbing season for the snow route up Avalanche Gulch, but that was obviously out of the question this year. Mount Eddy was a lower but steadfast companion to its more spectacular neighbor: at 9037 feet, the rounded summit of Mount Eddy is the highest point in the Klamath Mountains and has the distinction of being the highest summit west of I-5 along the entire West Coast.

Monument Peak from the high slopes of Granite Peak

Mount Shasta and Mount Eddy
While it’s possible to reach the summit of Granite Peak by taking a gentler hike to Stonewall Pass and then taking the connector trail over to the Granite Peak Trail just below the summit, most hikers I’ve discussed this route with note that the connector can be quite faint. However, as the trailhead to Stonewall Pass starts at a higher elevation, that option is less strenuous than the borderline extreme approach on the Granite Peak Trail.

The switchbacks ended when the trail finally reached the summit ridge; I scrambled along the rocky ridgeline to reach the true summit at 8094 feet, over 4500 feet above the trailhead.

Summit ridge of Granite Peak
The panorama atop Granite Peak was astonishing. The heart of this view was what I could see of the Trinity Alps to the north and west. The Trinity Alps are divided into the Red Trinities and White Trinities, based on the underlying geology and color of the mountains; while Granite Peak lay at the edge of the Red Trinities and offered excellent views down to colorful Stonewall Pass and nearby Red Mountain and Gibson Mountain, the jagged granite peaks of the White Trinities in the distance were the true highlight of this view. Sawtooth Mountain’s rugged profile, Thompson Peak’s sharp pinnacle and Mount Hilton’s snow-covered form were among the most notable sights of the rugged and snowy range, arguably California’s second most spectacular mountain range after the Sierra Nevada. In other directions, the view encompassed much of what I had seen on the way up: Mount Shasta, Lassen Peak, Trinity Lake, and the Yolla Bollys.

The White Trinities: Hilton, Thompson, and Sawtooth Peaks

Trinity Lake

View north to Middle and Gibson Peaks

Looking south to the Yolla Bollys and the California Coast Range
The descent back to the trailhead was just about as difficult as the hike up: the steepness of the grade made slipping a constant concern and by the time I made it back to the car my knees were shot.

The hike up Granite Peak collects a physical toll but rewarded me with some truly jaw-dropping views. I saw only a handful of other hikers over the entire day, with the only group that I saw being three locals who reached the summit via the connector from Stonewall Pass. I can’t recommend this hike to everyone, but mountain masochists will certainly find much to enjoy here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Eagle Peak (Yosemite)

Clouds Rest, Half Dome, and the High Sierra from Eagle Peak
12 miles round trip, 4200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Yosemite National Park entrance fee required (reservations may be needed)

Eagle Peak is the highest point on the north rim of California’s famed Yosemite Valley, so naturally it delivers one of the best views of Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra; the panorama from its summit was acclaimed as one of the park’s most comprehensive by no less a nature luminary than John Muir, who probably knew a thing or two about Yosemite. Reaching Eagle Peak requires a rocky and strenuous hike up the Yosemite Falls Trail followed by nearly three more miles of hiking in the forest, but dedicated hikers will find that the remarkable summit views are well worth the challenges en route. While the Yosemite Falls Trail is an extremely popular and crowded hike and you’re likely to run into hundreds of hikers on the ascent to the north rim, the trail through the forest on the north rim to Eagle Peak is very quiet, with this destination seeing perhaps just 5% of the traffic that flows to the top of Yosemite Falls. This hike can be combined with the hike to Yosemite Falls and Yosemite Point by extremely ambitious day hikers for an ultimate north rim day hike.

I hiked to Eagle Peak on a clear and lovely November day. This hike is most enjoyable during periods of heavy flow in Yosemite Falls, when the long ascent up the Yosemite Falls Trail rewards you with a humbling experience hiking alongside the thundering mist of North America’s tallest falls. Typically, this means late spring and early summer months- the falls are less impressive by July in most years and a trickle by the start of fall- but the arrival of a pair of early season rain and snow storms in California during the weeks before my hike had restored this seasonal waterfall’s more seasonably impressive flow rate.

The hike to Eagle Peak starts at the Yosemite Falls Trailhead, which is right next to Camp 4 and just a stone’s throw from Yosemite Lodge. A new Yosemite Falls Day Use parking area has been built on the south side of Northside Drive, right across the road from Camp 4, and you’ll want to park here if there’s room (if not, you may have to circle as far as the large parking lot by Yosemite Village).

The first 3.2 miles of the hike followed the Yosemite Falls Trail from Camp 4 up to the north rim of Yosemite Valley- this stretch is covered in more detail in my post on the Upper Yosemite Falls hike. To briefly summarize, the trail ascends via numerous rocky switchbacks up a steep, forested slope from the valley floor, climbing 1000 feet in a mile to Columbia Rock, where there is a lovely view of Half Dome and North Dome. 

Half Dome and North Dome from Columbia Rock
Past Columbia Rock, the trail undulates for a bit, climbing and dropping small increments. An unmarked spur trail to the right here led briefly downhill to a secluded and thrilling clifftop viewpoint where I could simultaneously see Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls along with the Middle Cascade- collectively, this three-tiered waterfall drops 2400 feet and makes up the tallest waterfall on the continent. 

Middle Cascade and Lower Yosemite Falls
Shortly afterwards, the main trail rounded a corner for some big views of towering Upper Yosemite Falls- which, at over 1400 feet tall, is the longest single drop of Yosemite Falls. After a flat stretch that brought me to the base of the upper falls, the Yosemite Falls Trail began a long climb with very rocky switchbacks again, this time ascending 1500 feet in 1.5 miles. There were nice views of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, the Sentinel, and the Clark Range before the trail entered a gully between two towering rock walls for the final ascent to the rim.

Upper Yosemite Falls and Half Dome
Half Dome from the ascent up the Yosemite Falls Trail
Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and the Clark Range
The extended climb from the Valley floor finally began leveling out a bit around 3 miles from the trailhead, as the Yosemite Falls Trail arrived at the north rim of the Valley and landscape began to flatten out a bit. At 3.2 miles, I came to a junction with the trail that ran along Yosemite’s north rim: the right fork here carried the majority of the continuous stream of hikers towards the top of Upper Yosemite Falls, while the left fork continued towards Eagle Peak, El Capitan, and other less-visited north rim destinations. I took the left fork, which continued ascending fairly steeply for another quarter mile through forest until the terrain finally relented and leveled out for a stretch. This trail was so much quieter than the Yosemite Falls Trail I had followed up to the rim: while I easily saw 300+ hikers on the Yosemite Falls Trail that day, I saw less than 15 other hikers after leaving the junction.

After a half mile of hiking through the forest from the Yosemite Falls Trail junction, I came to another junction: here, the trail heading straight led north to Tioga Road, while the north rim trail towards Eagle Peak and El Capitan headed to the left. I took the left fork: this trail followed a tumbling creek during a brief but steep stretch of uphill before flattening out. The level trail then traveled through the forest for a long and peaceful stretch, passing to the left of a low granite ridge and to the right of a small meadow. About 1.7 miles past the previous junction (and 5.4 miles into the hike), the trail began to climb steadily again. At 5.6 miles from the trailhead, I arrived at another trail junction: while the main north rim trail continued to the right here towards El Capitan, the Eagle Peak spur broke off to the left.

I headed to the left on the Eagle Peak spur trail. The trail climbed steeply through for the forest for a stretch until breaking out onto brushy slopes surrounding the granite ridge leading up to Eagle Peak. Here, the views that this hike promised finally opened up: as the trail followed the left (east) side of the ridge, sweeping panoramas of Half Dome and High Sierra were unfurled. I followed the now-faint trail as it danced along either side of the rocky ridge until finally ending at the base of the summit block; a brief and easy rock scramble brought me to the peak of this highest point along Yosemite’s North Rim.

The view from the summit is truly astounding and is more impressive than other North Rim viewpoints in that one can see so much of the High Sierra. While North Dome and Yosemite Point offer glimpses of the Sierra crest, only Eagle Peak is high enough to deliver views straight back to the Cathedral Range, Mount Lyell, and the entirety of the Clark Range. Mount Conness rose in the distance, while Mount Hoffman rose above the forests to the north closer by. The great granite expanses of Half Dome and Clouds Rest dominated the view down the valley- this was also a good place to observe North Dome, Royal Arches, and the Washington Column. The top of both Yosemite Falls and Nevada Falls were visible, although this was not a particularly impressive viewpoint for viewing either waterfall.

Yosemite Valley from Eagle Peak
Clark Range, Mount Starr King, Liberty Cap, Nevada Falls, and Glacier Point
Sentinel Dome rose across the Valley, supported by the mighty buttresses of Glacier Point and the Sentinel. I could see most major south rim viewpoints from here: Glacier Point, Taft Point, Dewey Point, and Crocker Point. The long rocky ridge of Middle Brother was visible below, a reminder that Eagle Peak is most recognizable from the Valley as the highest point in the Three Brothers formation. El Capitan was somewhat visible to the west, although it didn’t look particularly impressive from this perspective.

Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome, and the Sentinel rise over Yosemite Valley
When I arrived just after noon on an October Saturday, I had the summit to myself for a bit; a handful of other hikers arrived after I did but there were never more than four groups at the summit at a time that day. The Yosemite Falls Trail was very busy- I had constant company both going up and coming down- but I was able to hike the trail to Eagle Peak in solitude and only had a few companions at the summit.

This is a tough hike that is ultimately unsuitably strenuous for most visitors to Yosemite. However, fit hikers looking to escape the crowds of the Valley while still enjoying Yosemite’s awesome walls and waterfalls may find this to be one of the most rewarding of the many hikes in John Muir’s Incomparable Valley.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Taft Point and Sentinel Dome

Half Dome and Clouds Rest
5.2 miles loop, 1100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Yosemite National Park entrance fee required

The loop hike visiting the airy cliffs of Taft Point and the sweeping High Sierra panoramas of Sentinel Dome may well be the best easier day hike in California’s Yosemite National Park. The hike visits two extremely popular viewpoints that are accessed from the Glacier Point Road on standalone hikes but then connects the two vista points with a less-traveled stretch along the Pohono Trail, where there are fewer hikers to compete for the many still-incredible viewpoints. As with all hikes in Yosemite, get to the trailhead early to avoid the daytime crush of tourist crowds. Check before visiting to see if reservations are required for entering Yosemite during your planned visit; this hike will not be accessible in 2022 during a season-long closure of Glacier Point Road.

The cliffs at Taft Point and Roosevelt Point along this hike are extremely dangerous places. Every year, a handful of Yosemite’s visitors fall to their deaths from the park’s many cliffs. Taft Point has an especially deadly history, as the ease of access and general lack of railings of the viewpoint is a setup for tragedy for the many tourists who see Yosemite as a natural Disneyland rather than as a landscape imbued with equal amounts of beauty and danger.

I hiked Taft Point and Sentinel Dome on a sunny November day with impossibly clear skies. Leaving Yosemite Village, I headed westbound on Northside Drive for 6 miles, turning left at the fork indicating Highway 41. At the next junction with Southside Drive about a mile later, I turned right onto Wawona Road (Highway 41) and followed this road out of the valley. Nine miles up windy Wawona Road, I came to a junction with the Glacier Point Road, where I turned left and followed the road for 14 miles to the parking lot on the left side of the road for Sentinel Dome/Taft Point. Parking here is somewhat limited and is likely to be filled by mid-morning during the summer and on weekends; Glacier Point Road is only open late spring through fall, typically around May to November each year but dependent on snow conditions.

From the trailhead, I followed the rock-demarcated path briefly downhill to a split between the Taft Point and Sentinel Dome Trails, which forked to the left and right, respectively. Hiking the loop in either direction is likely rewarding, but both times that I’ve been here I’ve chose to hike it clockwise, hitting up Taft Point first. This consigns the primary uphill climb of the hike to the middle stretch of the trail rather than saving it for the end; additionally, the lighting at Taft Point is often better earlier in the day, while Sentinel Dome views may be better after the Sun is a bit higher in the sky. Thus, I took the left fork towards Taft Point to start my hike that day. When I started hiking at 7:20 AM, there were already other hikers on the trail, but I still managed to spot a coyote wandering through the sparse forest here.

The Taft Point Trail traveled through a scattered forest as it gently descended to the west. At a half mile, I came to a junction with the Pohono Trail: the right fork (which I would later take) led towards Glacier Point and Sentinel Dome, while the left fork continued east towards Taft Point (and eventually Tunnel View). The trail continued its gentle descent on a mostly dirt tread for another two-fifths of a mile until the forest terminated and the terrain became much steeper at 0.9 miles from the trailhead.

The final 0.2 miles to Taft Point involved a rocky descent across an open slope with dramatic vertical drop-offs a little distance to the right of the trail. Here, I came to the Fissures, a set of deep, parallel gashes in the cliffs here. From the cliffs at the Fissures, I could see ahead to the soaring cliffs of Taft Point, which rose above where I stood and culminated in a rocky prow where a small railing provided hikers some minimal protection from the vertigo-inducing depths below.

The Fissures
Here, the Pohono Trail headed to the left and continued towards Dewey Point; the path to Taft Point was unmarked but obvious so I followed it through a final uphill stretch to reach the small, enclosed viewpoint with its big views of Yosemite Valley. What a thrilling view! El Capitan’s chiseled Nose stood out from its surrounding wall of smooth granite across the Valley. Below me, there was just air- over 3000 feet of it, a sheer and terrifying drop to the floor of Yosemite Valley which at that early morning hour was a shadowed abyss inhabited by the wind alone. The Three Brothers towered to the right of El Capitan, culminating in pointy Eagle Peak, another astounding viewpoint to which I had hiked the day before. To the east, Upper Yosemite Falls leaped off the north rim, its waters wafting ethereally down a 1400 foot vertical drop until they dissolved into mist. Mount Hoffman, sporting the first snows of the season, rose in the distant High Sierra, its newly-melted waters feeding the spectacle of Yosemite Falls below.

Taft Point and El Capitan
As thrilling as the main, fenced-off viewpoint was, there was an even better view on the cliff to the left (west). Making my way over to this less-crowded outcrop, I was rewarded with a bonus view of the Cathedral Rocks rising across from El Capitan, the tallest spires catching slivers of nearly solstice light that slipped over the shadow of the south rim. Beyond, the Sierra foothills died out into the fog-bound Central Valley, and beyond even that I was astounded to see the rolling mountains of the Coast Range. Here, the view of Yosemite Falls improved as well: not only were the Upper Falls visible, but now the entire drop of that waterfall, including the Middle Cascade and the Lower Falls, could be seen, a limnological epic spanning 2400 feet in elevation. The granite pyramid of Mount Conness, a prominent but faraway peak on the Sierra Crest, could be seen above the Valley here, too.

Yosemite Falls and Mount Hoffman
Yosemite Falls from Taft Point
The views at Taft Point were lovely, but even at 8 AM there was a steady stream of visitors beginning to arrive at this vista point. To escape the building crowds, I headed back uphill along the Pohono Trail towards the trailhead until coming to that earlier trail junction a half mile from Taft Point at 1.7 miles into the hike; here, I turned left to take the Pohono Trail towards Sentinel Dome. This stretch of the Pohono Trail was initially nondescript as it traveled through the forest, providing peek-a-boo views of Sentinel Dome’s rounded, weathered granite top, a preview of the hike’s next destination.

Sentinel Dome
The trail descended over the next mile past the Taft Point junction; initially confined to the woods, the trail eventually made it to the rim of Yosemite Valley, where some views began to open up. One mile past the junction and 2.7 miles into the hike, the trail reached its lowest elevation point as it crossed Sentinel Creek. Immediately after crossing the creek, the trail split at an unsigned junction. While the main Pohono Trail- a wider, maintained path- headed to the right, a smaller but still obviously oft-used path split off to the left here, leading out to Roosevelt Point, another stomach-churning viewpoint over Yosemite Valley where the highlight was a view westwards, where El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks guarded the entrance to the Valley.

Cathedral Rocks and El Capitan from Roosevelt Point
Unlike at Taft Point, there are no railings at Roosevelt Point; there is nothing but your common sense and fear separating the edge of the cliff and the abyss below. Yet I could not resist peering over these cliffs, as Sentinel Creek embarked on its cascading journey to the Valley below: this is a rare spot to view Sentinel Falls. I was able to look at the falls for no more than a few seconds, though, as a sense of vertigo set in almost immediately as I peered down into the rocky chasm. Also unlike Taft Point, there were no crowds at Roosevelt Point: while I’m sure that being there at 9 AM on a Sunday morning in November helped, at the end of the day this spot sees far fewer crowds than the more popular destinations at either end of the hike.

Sentinel Falls below Roosevelt Point
Roosevelt Point is named for none other than the nation’s twenty-sixth president, a great champion of the national park idea in the United States. During a western presidential tour in 1903, Teddy Roosevelt joined John Muir for a few days of backcountry camping in Yosemite and journeyed up to Glacier Point. The magnificent scenery and wildness that Roosevelt experienced on this trip supercharged his enthusiasm for conservation and helped set in motion the most consequential land preservation presidency of American history.

It’s possible to turn around from Roosevelt Point and return to the main Pohono Trail, but I recommend instead following the well-established path that continues leading along the rim for a half mile past Roosevelt Point. I encountered quite a bit of deadfall here and had to climb around or over many fallen trees, as this stretch of the trail may not be maintained. However, there were many lovely views to keep my attention: the trail passed above the Sentinel and had open areas where I could see Mount Hoffman, Mount Conness, and North Dome. Yosemite Falls was perhaps the highlight of this stretch of the hike: here, I was directly across the valley from the falls and I found myself staring for minutes at a time at the slow motion of its plunging waters.

Yosemite Falls
A steep uphill push brought this side path back to the main Pohono Trail, which had stayed in the forest in the interim. Just past the point where the paths reunited, at 3.2 miles into hike, the Pohono Trail passed by a granite outcrop that gave a great view of Yosemite Falls; those hikers that stuck to the main trail can still enjoy great falls views here. Past this viewpoint, the trail began a steady uphill climb with switchbacks on the lower slopes of Sentinel Dome. This uphill soon flattened out as the trail contoured around the north side of the dome.

At 3.7 miles, the Pohono Trail intersected with the Sentinel Dome Trail; the Pohono Trail continued downhill to the left, while the Sentinel Dome Trail headed uphill to the right. I took the Sentinel Dome Trail, which pushed aggressively uphill, gaining a ridge and passing a small pod of communications equipment. As the trail ascended along the ridge, some partial views of Half Dome and the High Sierra appeared, peek-a-boo promises of the more amazing views to come. The trail made a few unmarked intersections with road traces, which I ignored; I followed the broad path up the ridge, making a beeline for the summit.

Four miles into the hike, I came to two successive junctions with trails that led towards the trailhead parking lot. In both cases, I ignored these trails and continued up the ridge towards Sentinel Dome. After the second junction, the trail broke out of the forest onto Sentinel Dome’s open granite. Here, the trail faded and I made my way up the smooth slabs of rock until I reached the 8127-foot high summit. There were 10 or so groups of hikers on the summit when I arrived- not overwhelmingly crowded, but certainly not quiet. The broad top of the dome ensured there was enough room for everyone to spread out.

Approaching the summit of Sentinel Dome
Sentinel Dome’s rounded summit delivers a 360-degree view of Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Nevada. The view to the east is similar in many aspects to the view from Glacier Point, although an additional thousand feet of elevation allows views deeper into the High Sierra. On the other hand, as Sentinel Dome is set away from the rim of the valley, there are no airy drops below this viewpoint, so it lacks the adrenaline that one gets from standing atop Taft Point or Glacier Point.

The view from Sentinel Dome up Tenaya Canyon is classic: North and Basket Domes, Mount Watkins, Clouds Rest, and Half Dome bound Tenaya Canyon on its sides, with Mount Hoffman, Mount Conness, and the Cathedral Range rising in the distance behind it. To the right of Half Dome rose the southern reaches of the Cathedral Range rising to Mount Lyell, the highest peak in the park. Mount Ritter and Banner Peak- two of the Sierra’s most beautiful peaks- are technically also visible here, although they barely peek over the ridges around Mount Lyell. Large expanses of granite lined the side of the Merced River’s canyon, with the river itself bursting into view as it shot down Nevada Falls next to the aptly named Liberty Cap, a granite dome that truly has a resemblance to a Phrygian cap. Mount Starr King- a granite peak that is somehow simultaneously rounded and sharp- rose further to the south, standing in front of the high, snowy peaks of the Clark Range. The lower granite ridges in the vicinity of Ostrander Lake rose directly to the south. To the north, I could see both the lower and upper drops of Yosemite Falls, while Cathedral Rocks and El Capitan stood as guardians of the western end of the Valley. A plaque embedded in the rock at the summit pointed out most of these mountains surrounding us.

Half Dome, Clouds Rest, Mount Watkins, and the High Sierra
Mount Lyell and High Sierra Peaks above the Merced River watershed and Nevada Falls
Mount Starr King and the Clark Range
I was lucky to have an extremely clear day: looking west beyond the foothills and the foggy Central Valley, I could see much of the Diablo Range near the Bay Area! Particularly recognizable were the double peaks of Mount Diablo itself, the high summit of Mount Hamilton, and the lonely but prominent form of Pacheco Peak rising above Pacheco Pass near Gilroy. What a rare sight! John Muir traveled through Pacheco Pass on his first trip from San Francisco to Yosemite Valley; it was incredible to see so many of the places that were meaningful to Muir in a single view.

After soaking in these wonderful views, I descended the dome along the route that I took up; when I met the first trail heading back to the parking lot, I turned right and followed this trace of a paved road back towards the trailhead, now just a mile away. After following this former road for a short stretch through forest, I arrived at a junction with a single-track trail that continued towards the trailhead; this time, I followed the single-track trail, which descended across an open granite slope before reentering the forest. A few more periodic descents through forest punctuated by areas of open granite brought me back to the trailhead. I had a few final partial views of El Capitan through the trees on this stretch as well as a couple more vantage points of Sentinel Dome.

Sentinel Dome
The scenery on this hike is extraordinary. The relative easiness of this hike means that this is one of the few spots where casual and novice hikers can gaze out on such vast panoramas without a strenuous exertion. The popularity that comes with that may be off-putting to some, but I would still recommend this hike to all Yosemite visitors- just be sure to come early to snag a parking spot.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Pohono Trail: Tunnel View to Dewey Point

El Capitan with Ribbon and Bridalveil Falls, viewed from Crocker Point
10 miles round trip, 3700 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Yosemite National Park entrance fee required

The stunning view of the massive granite face of El Capitan from Dewey Point and the lovely views of Bridalveil and Ribbon Falls from Stanford and Crocker Points make this collection of three viewpoints an excellent hiking destination in California's Yosemite National Park. The three viewpoints see far fewer visitors than other trails in the Yosemite Valley area, even though the trail that visits them- the Pohono Trail- connects Glacier Point and Tunnel View, two of Yosemite's best known viewpoints. The hike to these three viewpoints from Tunnel View is a bit strenuous and tiring, but it's still one of the easier ways to reach a viewpoint of the valley from above in the spring and is a very enjoyable hike. However, this is a very destination-oriented hike and does not have too many rewarding views en route. Artist Point and Inspiration Point are often advertised as intermediate stops along this hike and destinations of their own but I do not recommend doing a dedicated hike to either, as the views are either quite similar to Tunnel View or have been obscured by trees over time. Commit to reaching at least Stanford Point or consider another hike in Yosemite Valley.

In summer, hikers can more easily access these viewpoints from Glacier Point Road: thus, I recommend this as a spring hike, when hikers can enjoy waterfalls at peak flow and Tunnel View provides the easiest (but still quite difficult) access. Early season hikers are likely to run into snow, so come prepared with hiking poles, boots, microspikes, and a map.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Yosemite National Park has used a permit quota system to restrict the number of visitors in the park during peak tourist season. Check nps.gov/yose before you go to see whether there are currently restrictions on visiting the park.

3700 feet of elevation gain is no walk in the park, but that's not the primary reason for this hike's strenuous rating. What made this hike particularly difficult was that there were upwards of a hundred downed trees on the trail during my visit. At such an early point in the season, it made sense that trail crews had not yet had a chance to clean up the area; but the extent of fallen trees was really quite shocking. This being one of my first springs in the Sierra, I wasn't entirely sure whether this was typical following a standard winter's storms or whether all of the fallen trees were related to a severe Mono Winds event in January of that year.

I hiked to Dewey Point during a mid-April visit to Yosemite. The trailhead is at Tunnel View, perhaps the one of the most photographed views on our planet. Coming from San Francisco after I left work on Friday, I approached the park on Highway 120 and entered through the Big Oak Flat entrance. I reached Yosemite Valley by taking Big Oak Flat Road down to the valley from Crane Flat; how you reach Yosemite Valley will largely depend on whether you're coming from the Bay, Fresno, or Merced. Once in Yosemite Valley, I took Southside Drive to its junction with Wawona Road. Here, I turned right onto Wawona Road, following it towards Fresno and Wawona. I followed Wawona Road uphill for two miles to Tunnel View. I parked in the lot on the south side of Wawona Road at Tunnel View as the trail starts on the south side of the road.

Tunnel View is always a bit of a zoo: hundreds of tourists are always standing at the stone-lined overlook platform, posing for selfies with this iconic view that encompasses many of Yosemite Valley's greatest features: El Capitan, Clouds Rest, Half Dome, Sentinel Dome, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall. Parking is usually full here and you'll sometimes have to wait for a spot, but tourists cycle in and out of this lot quickly so you shouldn't have to wait too long. On the day of my hike, there were already many carloads of visitors at just after 9 AM as well as a couple doing an engagement photo shoot.

Tunnel View
The Pohono Trail started from the southern lot at Tunnel View. The trail immediately began heading uphill on a rocky trail. Just fifty meters from the trailhead, the Pohono Trail made a very sharp switchback. Watch out for this switchback! Many hikers assume that the trail continues going straight here and end up off trail; my family experienced this when we tried to hike to Artist Point during a 2006 visit to Yosemite. 

Pohono is the native Ahwahneechee name for Bridalveil Fall, meaning "spirit of puffing wind," alluding to the breezes that often deflect the stream of that free-falling waterfall. The hike justifies its name, delivering many lovely views of Bridalveil Fall, especially later from Stanford and Crocker Points.

The Pohono Trail continued climbing through steep, rocky switchbacks in brushy terrain with some forest cover after the initial tricky switchback. As the trail climbed higher, occasional views began to open up to the east of Yosemite Valley, views that were generally quite similar to those at Tunnel View, albeit with far less jostling with other tourists to take photos. El Capitan's massive granite face was especially impressive across the valley. At a a half mile from the trailhead, the Pohono Trail crossed the Old Wawona Road. Artist Point lay a half mile to the left down Old Wawona Point from here, but I skipped the extra mileage for my hike, as the view from Artist Point does not differ too much from what you can see at Tunnel View.

View near Artist Point
El Capitan
After crossing the Old Wawona Road, the Pohono Trail continued to ascend steadily, climbing another 500 feet in a half mile to reach Inspiration Point. At Inspiration Point, there was a wide, flat shelf on the mountainside, where in the past there must have been a viewpoint; today, the forest has entirely swallowed Inspiration Point and there are no Yosemite Valley views from here. Inspiration Point is a misnomer today; that it is still called such on park signage is surely misleading for at least some hikers who think they can find inspiring views here. The true views of this hike were still to come, another 1600 feet uphill from Inspiration Point.

Leaving Inspiration Point, the Pohono Trail entered the main, extended ascent of the hike. Over the next 1.8 miles, the trail climbed nearly 1600 feet; after a few initial switchbacks, the trail began heading southeast, following the sloping back of the mountain up towards the rim of Yosemite Valley. This stretch of trail was made harder at the time of my visit by the numerous downed trees, most of which I assumed had fell during an extreme wind event during the winter (it's hard for me to imagine that the National Park Service would continue to leave this popular trail so poorly maintained during peak tourist season, though). 

Snow began to appear on the trail as I approached Artists Creek, at 2.5 miles into the hike. In spring, the creek was flowing well, but crossing was still relatively easy. After crossing the creek, the trail became especially steep as it ascended through the forest to cross a high ridge above Old Inspiration Point. Topping out on the ridge at just under three miles, I caught the first glimpse of the views for which I had traveled here: through the trees, I could see Half Dome, Clouds Rest, Tenaya Canyon, and the Cathedral Range in the distance. 

Cathedral Range, Clouds Rest, and Half Dome from above Old Inspiration Point
The top of the ridge finally marked a break from the endless ascent up from the trailhead. Leaving the ridge, the trail descended gently through the snowy forest to Meadow Brook, where it crossed the stream in a small clearing at 3.3 miles into the hike. At the time of my hike, this was one of the most hazardous portions of the hike: the ground was entirely covered with snow and the creek was running beneath a snow bridge, making only a few appearances beneath collapsed portions of the snow. I gingerly crossed the snow bridge to reach the other side of the creek. If you come after the snowmelt, this crossing is likely to be easier, as long as the water is not too high.

The trail turned sharply to the left after crossing Meadow Brook and I enjoyed a brief stretch of flat hiking through the forest. Soon, the Pohono Trail began to descend, dropping about 100 feet as it approached the rim of Yosemite Valley and came to a junction with the spur trail to Stanford Point at 3.6 miles. I took the spur trail at the junction, descending steeply but briefly until the forest ended and I found myself gazing down into the airy chasm of Yosemite Valley. The trail ended at the rim, but I headed to the left along social paths until reaching the very edge of Stanford Point, where there spectacular views of both sides of the Valley below.

Many of Yosemite Valley's major rock features were visible from here. Most impressive was El Capitan, the 3000-foot tall granite face rising across the Valley from the south rim. Ribbon Fall plunged down the west shoulder of El Capitan- this seasonal waterfall, usually only visible during the early spring snowmelt, is the tallest single-drop waterfall on the continent, with a single plunge of over 1600 feet. Half Dome, North Dome, Clouds Rest, Sentinel Dome, and the Sentinel were visible further down the Valley, along with a view of the snowy Cathedral Range in the High Sierra. The Cathedral Rocks appeared to be almost directly below me from this angle, with graceful Bridalveil Fall leaping out of its hanging valley, suspending momentarily in the clear mountain air before floating down to join the Merced. To the west, I could see where the glacier-carved Yosemite Valley transitioned into the river-carved Merced gorge. Tunnel View, where I started my hike, was visible below, its parking lot now overrun with tour bus tourists at midday. In the distance, I could see the crashing waters of Cascade Creek, falling haphazardly down granite cliffs and past Big Oak Flat Road.

Yosemite Valley view from Stanford Point
Cascade Creek Falls, the Merced Gorge, and Tunnel View from Stanford Point
After enjoying the sweeping view from Stanford Point, I backtracked slightly uphill to rejoin the Pohono Trail, taking the trail east at the junction to continue towards Crocker and Stanford Points. The trail continued through snowy forest, crossing another stream at 3.9 miles. A steady ascent through forest past the stream crossing brought me to Crocker Point at 4.3 miles; I took a short spur left from the Pohono Trail here to reach the second of the trail's three big viewpoints.

Snowy forest between Stanford and Crocker Points
The airy view at Crocker Point was similar to that from Stanford Point, but this panorama incorporated a bit more of the snowy High Sierra, including Mount Hoffman. Crocker Point had lovely views of Bridalveil Fall and Ribbon Fall. The viewpoint was airy and vertigo-inducing, with a direct, 3000-foot drop down sheer granite cliffs from Crocker Point to the Valley Floor. 

Crocker Point view
Ribbon Fall from Crocker Point
Both Stanford and Crocker Points are named for wealthy industrialists (robber barons, by some interpretations) who played integral roles in California's economic development by investing in the earliest transcontinental railroads. Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker had small fortunes associated from running businesses in Gold Rush California before their investments in the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads made them some of the richest men in California. Stanford later founded a namesake university in Palo Alto. Dewey Point- the hike's final destination- was named instead after Admiral of the Navy George Dewey, who became the highest ranking officer in United States Naval history after winning the Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish-American War. All three men were prominent participants and champions of late nineteenth century European American ideas of Manifest Destiny and imperialism; their complicated legacies contributed to creating the world that we know today, but were at least partially responsible for the displacement and genocide of California Native Americans, rampant natural resource exploitation in the West, and US colonial rule in the Philippines, among other things.

Leaving Crocker Point, the Pohono Trail followed the rim of the valley south and then east on a steady ascent. Slightly further up on the rim, there were magnificent views back to the great prow of Crocker Point, where vertical cliffs culminated at a lofty point on the rim above the incomparable valley.

Looking back on Crocker Point
The trail drew back from the rim as it ascended through the forest, climbing gently until it leveled out at 4.8 miles. After crossing a tree-strewn, snow-covered, forested flat area just south of the rim of the valley, the Pohono Trail descended slightly to reach Dewey Point, a thin peninsula of land extending into the airy open of the Valley, at 5 miles. Dewey Point- being the highest of the hike's three viewpoints- had the widest and most spectacular views. Large portions of Yosemite's High Sierra were visible from here, including the Cathedral Range, the high peaks around Mounts Lyell and Maclure, and the Clark Range. Many prominent features of the south rim of the valley were visible, including the Sentinel, Sentinel Dome, and Taft Point. El Capitan's massive sheet of granite was very impressive from here, dominating the view across the valley. While the pointed spires of the Cathedral Rocks were visible, Bridalveil Fall had fallen out of sight here, blocked by other granite features of the Valley's high walls. North Dome, Mount Watkins, Clouds Rest, and Half Dome, all uniquely-shaped granite domes, rose at the east end of the Valley. Looking back to the west, my view of the Merced River Gorge encompassed Tunnel View, where I had started the hike that morning and where tour buses were discharging loads of tourists to compete for selfies with El Capitan.

High Sierra and Sentinel Dome
Yosemite Valley from Dewey Point
Ribbon Fall, El Capitain, and Mount Hoffman from Dewey Point
Clark Range from Dewey Point
Merced Gorge and Tunnel View from Dewey Point
While you'll see half the people in the park at Tunnel View, the hike up to Dewey Point is actually pretty quiet. Most hikers drop off in the opening mile of the trail between Tunnel View and Inspiration Point and while there were still a handful of hikers that I saw up by Stanford, Crocker, and Dewey Points, I largely had these viewpoints to myself. Dewey Point is a bit busier that the two other viewpoints, as it also sees visitors coming by a shorter hike from either Badger Pass in winter or the Glacier Point Road in summer. However, even then, I would expect these viewpoints on the Pohono Trail to offer a quieter alternative for experiencing Yosemite Valley than sitting in traffic behind a parade of RVs near Yosemite Village.

There are certainly more spectacular hikes in Yosemite National Park, whether in the Valley or the High Sierra, but the hike of Dewey Point from Tunnel View is still highly rewarding and worthwhile, especially early in the season when it is one of the few high viewpoints accessible from the Valley by day hike.